LOCAL WALKS: Mount Erie

1. Swaddled in a warm blanket, someone settles in to enjoy the view.

On this darkest day of the year, let’s stay with the theme of extremes and go up to the highest place on the Fidalgo Island, Mount Erie. At 1273 feet (388 m) high, this hunk of Jurassic era volcanic rock wouldn’t even be noticed in most places on the mainland but relative to sea level, Mt. Erie is a prominent point of reference. Locals like driving up the narrow, winding road to the top to take in breathtaking views of the landscape around the mountain and beyond, where islands dot the horizon and two distant mountain ranges rivet one’s attention. Even on a chilly, late November day like the day when this photo was made, a quick trip up the mountain is rewarding.

Here’s a topo map of the mountain if that’s your thing. Personally, I love the way topographic maps translate on-the-ground reality into simple, graphic patterns.

Before we look around the mountain itself, let’s take a step back and see how it looks from a distance. When I’m out on the flats (Skagit Valley agricultural land) and I see Mt. Erie’s distinctive, bumpy shape and twin cell towers, I always feel reassured. I know that home is nearby. Before there were cars and roads, the mountain would have been an important navigation tool.

2. On a snowy February afternoon the bulge of Mt. Erie, with light from the open waters of the Salish Sea glowing beyond it, is a very pleasing sight.

3. Exactly six months ago, on the summer solstice, we were exploring Cornet Bay on neighboring Whidbey Island during a super-low tide. Looking northwest, we were happy to see our mountain.

4. There it is in the fog, looking east from Washington Park on Fidalgo Island.

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6. This view at the base of the mountain shows a pretty little waterfall on a trail that traverses the wooded west face. The waterfall runs all year and nourishes one of the island’s few colonies of Maidenhair fern, growing in moist, rocky crevices.

But enough, let’s go up!

7. Erie Mountain Drive in November…

8. …and on another foggy day in June.

9. One rainy day in December I drive up and park at the top. No one else is here.

10. It’s peaceful.

11. A view through the branches of a Shore pine on a September afternoon.

Mount Erie lies within the Anacortes Community Forest Lands, comprising almost 3,000 acres of protected forests, wetlands and lakes on Fidalgo Island. A network of trails climbs up and down the mountain. If you choose to hike from the parking lot at the bottom to the summit, you’ll gain about a thousand feet in 3.5 rocky, rooty, twisted, scenic miles. The most I’ve done is to climb Sugarloaf, Mt. Erie’s shorter neighbor (on the right in photo #2). That left me feeling beat. I prefer to hike along trails near the bottom or drive to the top and wander through the forest just below the summit.

12. Ravaged trees and lavender-gray mist on eerie Mt. Erie.

13. Some of the older Douglas fir trees are gnarled and twisted from years of exposure to the elements.

14. The mountain catches moisture and holds it close, which these lichens find very agreeable. This tree is almost buried in them!

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18. Douglas firs grow tall and straight just below the summit.

19. Looking northwest toward the San Juan Islands during the Pacific Northwest’s “June Gloom,” a weather phenomenon we suffer through each year while we wait for the sunny days of July and August. Beauty can be found in that June Gloom!

20. On a bright summer day a pastoral view includes hay fields, freshwater lakes and a tall, rugged cliff called Rodger Bluff. Pacific Northwest painter Morris Graves lived a hermit’s life up there in the 1940s. He bought 20 acres on “The Rock” for $80, using money he made selling paintings to the Museum of Modern Art. You can find more about Graves’ sojourn on Fidalgo and see his work in this article by local blogger Julee Rudolf.

21. Joyous Young Pine, 1944. Morris Graves.

22. The North Cascades from Mt. Erie.

23. Mount Rainier is over a hundred miles away and doesn’t exactly loom on the horizon but the sight of it always quickens my heart.

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Maybe one day when we’re all free to roam again you’ll visit Fidalgo Island and see the views from Mt. Erie for yourself. Maybe you’ve already been here, or perhaps your only glimpses will be virtual ones. In any case, I hope you’ve enjoyed one person’s very subjective visual diary of this old hunk of rock.

A previous post about Mount Erie can be found here.

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CAUGHT

It’s caught,

held for a moment on its way somewhere –

where?

Its movement arrested, it seems

comfortable (and what is comfort anyway, but

the false security

that nothing will change?)

It’s stalled, or maybe

paused

in this in-between place.

Not my idea of home.

But still, it settles in

until the next shift

nudges it along.

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1. The next breeze might blow this seed onto the ground – or maybe not. Hollywood Heights, Los Angeles, California.

2. A Ginkgo leaf is temporarily trapped in the clutches of pine needles. Lu Shan Garden, Portland, Oregon.

3. On a quiet residential street, a spring blossom has fallen into a bed of leaves. Amsterdam, Netherlands.

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The word “caught” can indicate a number of different states of being – caught in a maelstrom, caught lying, caught a break. These particular images came together because one day when I was out with my camera I noticed a leaf caught on a twig, suspended in mid-fall. Soon I began to see this phenomenon of things caught on other things frequently. I photographed leaves and other bits of flotsam caught on fences, speared by twigs, and resting on bigger leaves. There’s something poignant about these suspended moments, something that speaks to the ultimately temporary nature of all things, the “just-passing-through” sense of life that we humans find hard to accept.

I started adding the keyword “caught” to photographs in Lightroom so I could gather them together. Here’s a selection that spans eleven years and two continents.

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4. It was a poignant sight – dozens of little dead moths, covered with dew and caught on branches along a trail on a cold October morning. Baker River Trail, Concrete, Washington.

5. A feather caught on a blackberry branch. Snoqualmie Valley Trail, Duvall, Washington.

6. Fluff from Cottonwood tree seeds is caught in a corner of a roadside parking lot. Near Edison, Washington.

7. Even in January, the fallen leaves of Bigleaf maples trees remain snagged in branches high above the ground. O.O. Denny Park, Kirkland, Washington.

8. This lichen-covered twig fell right into the “arms” of a Madrone tree and stayed there. Sharpe Park, Fidalgo Island, Washington.

9. A length of cloth was tied to a rusty barbed wire fence, and then came the wind. Duvall, Washington.

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11. A length of plastic, whipped and wound by the wind on a cold day. Somewhere in upstate New York.

12. A tangle of tiny, curly leaves held by a depression in a wavy Hosta leaf. Bellevue Botanical Garden, Bellevue, Washington.

13. Bigleaf maples, with their deeply indented lobes, are always getting caught on branches and fences. Duvall, Washington.

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14. Fireweed seeds caught in a spider web. Juanita Bay, Kirkland, Washington.

15. This barbed wire fence has been catching hanks of sheep wool – do they rub up against it or are they just passing by? Klein Reken, Germany.

16. High tides and winds wrap strands of eel grass around the branches of trees that grow close to the water. Deception Pass State Park, Washington.

17. Leaves scrunched in the cracked mud of a dry creek bed. Somewhere in southeastern Arizona.

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19. Leaves from a Japanese maple tree fell into this Japanese lantern. Lu Shan Garden, Portland, Oregon.

20. The viscid caps of these mushrooms capture tiny treasures – Douglas fir needles, bits of leaves, a blade of grass and a tiny Redcedar cone. Deception Pass State Park, Washington.

21. A Bigleaf maple leaf hung up on a barbed wire fence. Snoqualmie Valley, Washington.

22. A wild Rhododendron blossom stopped by a Salal leaf. It will probably disintegrate right here, with the help of gentle spring rains. Deception Pass State Park, Washington.

23. Nature never ceases to amaze. This skeletonized leaf must have been caught on the tip of the horsetail plant when it was just beginning to grow. Mercer Slough, Bellevue, Washington.

24. A beautiful tropical leaf with an artful sprinkling of pollen. Hortus Botanicus, Leiden, Netherlands.

25. A year and a week later I observed the same phenomenon closer to home. Tree pollen was abundant, coating this Salal leaf. I wonder why the tiny pollen grains stayed in the veins – maybe because a day of heavy fog was followed by a still, dry day. The moisture from the fog may have coalesced, carrying the pollen grains into the veins of the leaf, where the grains settled and formed the pattern you see. (This is called making it up as you go along!) Mt. Erie, Fidalgo Island, Washington.

26. Where would we be if bees didn’t catch pollen? This one carries a load of precious Trillium pollen. Somewhere in King County, Washington.

27. The shredded leaf of this tropical plant is caught between the stems, looking like it might get up and dance if the right music is played. Fort Myers, Florida.

28. And more.

29. Snow often does brief balancing acts when it piles up precariously on twigs and branches. Kirkland, Washington.

30. A leaf is caught on my windshield on a rainy December evening. Kirkland, Washington.

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LOCAL WALKS: Beach and Dune

When we think of beaches and dunes we usually picture a seashore, probably by the ocean. But just over the bridge from my home there’s a breathtaking stretch of beach backed by sand dunes and a narrow strip of forest. Walking along that beach feels a lot like being at the ocean, so much so that you might not guess it’s 90 miles away. Masses of cold, Pacific water funnel down the Strait of Juan de Fuca twice a day, creating a rich maritime ecosystem. Luckily for the plants, animals and humans that pass through this particular spot, a state park was established here almost a hundred years ago, protecting this unusual habitat on the northwest corner of Whidbey Island. Whenever I want to walk along a beach and listen to waves lapping at my feet, this is where I go.

1. I usually come here late in the day. The beach faces west and at sunset, even on the coldest days, someone is always enjoying the view. The bulge on the right is a rough shelter made from driftwood that piles up in heaps, providing creative opportunities for amateur architects.

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5. Behind the shoreline, wind and water sculpt the land. There are round rocks dotted with lichens that could have been tossed there by storms decades ago. Tough plants that tolerate blowing sand, sporadic moisture, and poor soil are here, too, and in the forest there’s a surprise: an immense Douglas fir tree that has been there for over 800 years.

6. A close look at a lichen-spotted rock found in the sand dunes. Everything is worth a look!

7. I think this is American silvertop (Glehnia littoralis), a plant in the carrot/parsley family. Up to its neck in fine sand and swimming in seeds, I’m confident this plant has done its job. I’ll look for the flowers next year.

8. The old, contorted Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) sprawls on high ground just above the dunes. Standing under its sheltering limbs I feel a stillness resonating from the core of the tree, passing through every cell and into the air around and inside me.

9. A view toward the water from behind the old Doug fir.

10. Broken branches and Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) cones litter the mossy ground on a dry August day.

11. In the forest, Western dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) trees display warm Fall colors on branches hung with an assortment of gray-green lichens. You may recognize this scene – a similar one is in my previous post, “What it Might Be.”

12. On a scrubby hillock an ancient, toppled Western yew (Taxus brevifolia) tree pushes its branch tips up toward the light. This is c̓əx̌bidac, the bow wood tree. The strong, heavy wood can be used for bows, paddles, digging sticks and awls. The slow-growing Pacific yew is not at all common here. It is the original source of taxol, or paclitaxel, an important cancer drug. Thankfully, the drug can now be manufactured through cell culture techniques, taking pressure off wild trees.

13. Yew bark, the precious substance from which paclitaxel was made.

14. Colonies of lichens are at home on the deadwood. But why call it dead at all? Life springs up, reaches out and cycles around, even here.

15. This fierce little denizen of the dunes is the Douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) who is busy scolding me.

16. The middle dunes are anchored by tough grasses and Douglas fir trees.

17. A glimpse of Salish Sea waters and the San Juan Islands through a thicket of Sitka spruce, Douglas fir and beach grasses.

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19. Bullwhip kelp (Nereocyctis luetkeana) blades shine orange in the late sun on the beach. The blades (like leaves) are draped over the stipe (the stem) of this huge seaweed that grows abundantly just offshore. Follow this link to learn about early uses for Bullwhip kelp and find out how to make a Bullwhip kelp rattle. 🙂

20. Here’s a contemporary use for Bullwhip kelp – spontaneous beach sculpture.

21. These two pieces of driftwood formed a nice minimalist picture at sunset.

22. Raindrops speckle colorful rocks that were tossed into a driftwood cavity by the waves.

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24. A corny sailboat-in-the-sunset image – it’s trite but it’s hard to resist recording scenes like this.

25. The sun has set. Time to go home.

The unknowable ocean flows

down the strait

mixing currents and creatures,

ceaselessly anointing the beach

with life. A woman walks along the shore

barefoot in winter, carrying nothing.

A child climbs a driftwood pinnacle,

three Buffleheads bob among the breakers, and

a crab claw lands at my feet.

The wide, pale sky blesses it all.

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Dedicated to J-J. P. He was a great neighbor who was taken from his family and friends way too soon. RIP

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